One of the hottest musical styles of the 1960s was also one of the simplest. The creators of the Motown sound would be the first to acknowledge that creating a Motown hit wasn’t rocket science. Their devotion to the KISS principle (Keep It Simple, Stupid), combined with a group of talented musicians and songwriters, plus a dash of Detroit spirit, added up to a winning formula that kept America dancing for a decade and beyond. We’re remembering a few of the stars and songs that made Motown sound good.
The Four Tops: “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)”
The first big hit for the Four Tops was a classic example of the Motown sound. Nothing too fancy or over-the-top, no complex arrangements or vocal histrionics, just a solid verse-chorus-verse behind beautiful singing and peppy horns. The call-and-response interplay between Levi Stubbs and his bandmates was typical of Motown, as was the cheerful, synchronized dancing during their performance.
Mary Wells was one of the first stars of the fledgling label in the early 1960s. In its early days, Motown worked more with singing groups than solo artists, but Wells was an exception—and became the label’s first successful solo artist. So important was her style to the development of the Motown sound that she became known as “the first lady of Motown.”
The Supremes: “Where Did Our Love Go”
If Mary Wells opened the door for the women who would follow in her Motown footsteps, then Florence Ballard, Diana Ross, and Mary Wilson burst through it. Though the Supremes initially struggled to produce a hit, they became international superstars, beginning with the success of “Where Did Our Love Go.”
Marvin Gaye: “I Heard it Through the Grapevine”
Berry Gordy, founder of Motown Records and a major driver of the Motown sound, was initially unimpressed with the Marvin Gaye song that would become an unforgettable classic. In the weekly quality control meetings that ensured Motown’s music would remain flawless, he vetoed the single as too weak. When he later changed his mind, “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” saw the light of day and became a No. 1 hit.
The Jackson 5: “I Want You Back”
Another great Berry Gordy reversal? The Jackson 5. When he first heard the band, Gordy was reluctant to sign them. But when he finally got a chance to see Michael Jackson and his brothers perform, he knew what the world soon found out—their charisma was too infectious to pass up. He brought them into the Motown world and made them stars.
The Motown sound began to lose its impact on the pop music scene by the early 1970s as funk and disco took on more prominence. But thanks to its architects—Stubbs, Gaye, Wells and so many more—the Motown sound endures in our hearts long after it left the charts.